Indoor Agriculture at the Disruptive Innovation Festival


The Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF) is an online event that invites people to explore the question “The economy is changing – what do I need to know, experience and do?” through a series of webinars.

For 2016, the DIF’s main and interlinked themes were system reset, regenerative cities, and the future of work. A smaller (yet crucial) theme was agriculture. So it goes without saying that people were talking about vertical farming and urban agriculture as one of the many disruptive innovations for growing food.

Here are the three most interesting things I learned from the session on controlled-environment agriculture.

1. Fundamental factors for vertical farm production

One of the questions from the audience was “will vertical farming allow us to grow any crop?”. Probably not, in practice. But there are some factors that can help us determine which crops will work.

1. Rotations
One of the perks of controlled-environment agriculture is that you are season-independent. This allows you to grow crops year-round. So crops with the shortest throughput time are going to be best for making use of this advantage. For example, it takes about a month to grow a head of lettuce from seed. No wonder today’s vertical farms are mainly producing leafy greens.

2. Biomass proportion
When you’re growing indoors, your energy costs fundamentally support one process: carbon fixation. That makes crops with a high water weight attractive – essentially, you don’t need to suck as much carbon dioxide out of the air to harvest the same weight of produce. This explains why lettuce (‘the bottled water of produce’) and tomatoes (basically sacs of water) are popular crops.

3. Space
Like with energy, there’s no such thing as free space. Enough said.

4. Freshness
Some products spoil quicker than others. That’s why it makes sense to start by growing the most perishable crops closer to where they are consumed. Restaurants are willing to pay for this. After that, growing crops locally starts to become less worthwhile from a freshness perspective. On the other extreme – why would I want the wheat in my bread to come from across the street, if it’s going to be processed anyway?

2. The role of automation around urban agriculture

As a proud biosystems engineer, automation and agriculture bring up connotations of robots and mechanisation. This in itself will impact all forms of agriculture. The greater impact of automation on the rest of the world will influence urban agriculture, too.

Thanks to automation, operating costs can also be much lower than before. Getting the funding to start a business is easier than ever. This is why we can expect to see decentralised and dense clusters of businesses in the future.

People are conducting pilot studies of guaranteed basic income to see how automation might impact people’s lifestyles. One of these studies in the Netherlands is showing signs that people who don’t need to work for money enjoy working in community gardens. People in cities are becoming interested in agriculture – however, instead of moving to farmland, they want farming to come to the city.

These are some initial signs of how automation will impact vertical farming. What happens in the meantime will determine how the future plays out.

3. Vertical farming is a new frontier

The movement towards urban indoor agriculture is gaining momentum.

Yet it’s only just begun. It’s going to need more people to keep growing. We will need growers, engineers, entrepreneurs… the list goes on. Like old warehouses in cities, these are spaces waiting to be filled by the work of those eager enough.

What did the people at the DIF session recommend? Define your market. What problem do you want to solve? What are people looking for? Here are three things to do:

  1. Start building an archive for ideas – including a list of prices and crop varieties.
  2. Find people who you can help. Then see how you can help each other.
  3. Get hands-on experience. Literally know how to grow a plant from seed to harvest. Go volunteer, tinker at home, or work in a greenhouse during the busiest time of the year.

Take these three things and use them to brand yourself. Let people know who you are, and what you can offer advancing vertical farming in the world.

Closing remarks

Those were my top takeaways from the DIF session on controlled-environment agriculture. Many thanks to all the people who made it so engaging.

Although this year’s DIF finished today, recordings will still be available for another few weeks. If you hadn’t heard of the DIF before I highly recommend you have a look. I certainly will be catching up on some of the things I missed.

Note that the entire DIF was full of ideas interesting to urban agriculture, even though not all of them were explicitly presented in that context. This might become the topic of a future article.

With thanks to:

This article is part of a series on the Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF).
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.

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